Out of Control Policy Blog

California Prison Overcrowding and Costs, Part II

In my last post, I discussed the recent federal judges' decision to force the State of California to come up with a plan to release some 43,000 prisoners to relieve overcrowding and poor conditions at the state's correctional facilities.  I also touched on the costs of housing prisoners in the state, and how the prison guards' union contributes to these inflated costs.  On Thursday, an Orange County Register editorial expanded upon these issues:

What's going on with California prisons is a crime. We don't like federal courts dictating to local governments. But California officials have invited federal intervention for years by stuffing prison cells to nearly twice their capacity and ignoring the resultant deadly consequences, all the while padding paychecks of the increasingly politically powerful prison guards union.

A federal three-judge panel this week ordered release of 43,000 prisoners, a fourth of the inmate population, and gave state officials 45 days to come up with a plan or face federal takeover of the prisons. The action is necessary, the panel scolded, "to prevent death and harm." In typically delaying fashion, the state is expected to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

[. . .]

Sacramento almost never responds in a timely fashion to any crisis, whether it's the budget or prison overcrowding. But when the state assumes the responsibility of housing human beings, whether in hospitals or prisons, it has the responsibility to do it humanely. Federal authorities say inmates in the state's obscenely overcrowded prisons die at the rate of one per week from treatable or avoidable illnesses. A separate federal receivership already has negotiated with state officials an overhaul of prison medical care expected to cost $1.9 billion in construction costs for new facilities.

This death, inhumane overcrowding and escalating expense occur in a system in which the per-inmate cost is $49,000 a year, twice the national average by some estimates. The situation will require decisive action to reduce overcrowding and meet humane levels of care. This is achievable by contracting with other states for housing prisoners, early release of nonviolent offenders, early parole of prisoners nearing the end of their sentences and shifting some inmates to county jails – all steps that should have been taken without making a federal case of it.

In addition to contracting with other states for housing prisoners, as the editorial suggests, California should contract with private-sector providers for its own (in-state) facilities to reduce corrections costs and improve services.  Of course, this would mean going up against the politically-powerful prison guards' union, and legislators have already demonstrated that, even in the state's current desperate fiscal climate, they are not wont to rock the boat and enact significant, needed reforms.

Other Resources:

» Corporate Corrections?  Frequently Asked Questions About Prison Privatization

» Reason's Prisons and Corrections Research and Commentary

Adam Summers is Senior Policy Analyst

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Comments to "California Prison Overcrowding and Costs, Part II":

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george | August 18, 2009, 10:28pm | #

The CA prison guards and their union (CCPOA) have been behind this prison explosion. We now have 33 prisons in the state of CA, yet we still have severe overcrowding. The prison guards are very politically active and donate millions to sponsor elected officials and sentencing legistlation. They have done so for years and their influence on Sacramento is now being realized. The average CA prison guard makes between $70,000 and $80,000 a year. We spend 10 billion a year on corrections in CA, yet there are virtually no programs for rehabilitation. Most of this 10 billion goes to paying these prison guards salaries. Parole is set up to send the parolee right back where he got out from. Job security for the guards. Keep the violent offenders locked up, but the majority of those being incarcerated in CA prisons are non-violent drug offenders. Google ” CA prison guards” and see what comes up… You will be surprised! Wake up California!!!

missy | August 22, 2009, 8:57pm | #

I do believe that inmates should serve time for the crime that they committed but instead of the crime carrying a 5-10-15 yr sentence, let them due the 5yrs. It would help eliminate all of the mess we are currently in.

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